Thursday, January 28, 2010


Note:  The following is a reprint of an article written by Timothy R. Clark and Conrad A. Gottfredson.  We include it in this blog because Performer Support is a core contributor to organizational learning agility.

Organizations have reason to ponder their mortality these days. A few short months ago, a financial tsunami hit the United States. The rippling effect sent the economy reeling into a recession second only in magnitude to the Great Depression. Out of the wreckage a permanently altered reality—a new normal—has emerged. Organizations now compete in faster, more complex, and more volatile markets. And casualties are mounting. Consider that six of the top ten bankruptcies in US history have occurred since September of last year. Those six corporations had a combined asset value of over $1.25 trillion. What’s more, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts reports that corporate bankruptcy filings have doubled in the past twelve months. We’re not out of the woods.

At stake is the fundamental capacity of organizations to adapt to rapidly changing conditions—and do it again and again. It’s becoming increasingly clear that strategy will not save us. As the span of competitive advantage shortens, strategy cycles come more frequently. Whatever competitive advantage an organization enjoys today is melting away. The only question is the rate of the melt.
How can organizations sustain competiveness? We believe the answer is found in the pursuit of learning agility—the ability of an organization to learn at or above the speed of change. Organizations must accelerate knowledge cycles to keep pace with competitive cycles.

Organizational learning agility is an enterprise capability that requires deliberate and systematic design, including essential cultural, structural, process and technology support elements. Based on our research, there are five primary factors that interact to promote or hinder learning agility within organizations.
Figure: The Five-Factor Model of Organizational Learning Agility
  1. Intelligence Function— The capacity of an organization to survey and interpret its entire business ecosystem, including the internal competitive environment and the external competitive environment. The intelligence function interprets information and feeds the strategy function, which feeds the learning function.
  2. Learning Mindset—The prevailing assumptions, beliefs, and dispositions relating to the way people learn.
  3. Leadership Behavior—The dominant patterns of leadership within an organization.
  4. Organizational Support—The processes, systems, structures, and other forms of support that organizations provide to help employees in their formal and informal learning and execution activities.
  5. Learning Technology—The forms of technology employed to enable learning at individual and organizational levels.
Factor 1: The Intelligence Function
The first factor is the intelligence function, which is intended to be the distant early warning system and interpreter of the outside world to the organization. Some organizations approach business intelligence-gathering in a systematic way. Most are haphazard and ad hoc. Regardless of the configuration and maturity of the intelligence function, it is critically tied to the learning agility of an organization.

To move to a high level of learning agility, organizations must establish a comprehensive, balanced, and systematic process for gathering, integrating, and interpreting intelligence from a variety of intelligence domains that bear on the competitive position of the organization. They must have an established framework and logic to help them organize, prioritize, and inform the organization. Finally, there must be direct communication and coordination among the intelligence function, the strategy function, and the learning function. Otherwise, the learning function will be blind-sided with unforeseen events and no time to respond. It will remain a tactical, passive, and uninformed business partner.

Factor 2: The Learning Mindset
The second factor in the five-factor model is the organization’s prevailing learning mindset. The dominant learning mindset across organizations is undergoing a second major shift since the postwar period. For centuries permanent learning was the prevailing model, which envisioned “one-time learning for permanent qualification.” As markets became more turbulent, learners gradually embraced a continuous learning mindset as a response to relentless disruption and skills obsolescence. It was during this time that the notion of the learning organization came into currency. Today, organizations find themselves in the midst of a second major transition. As competitive environments increase in speed, complexity, and volatility, organizations and individuals are compelled toward a dynamic learning mindset. Dynamic learning is defined as rapid, adaptive, collaborative, and self-directed learning at the moment of need. The new mindset recognizes learning as the source of sustained competitive advantage in the context of a protean organization.

As organizations move toward dynamic learning, they face a number of challenges. For example, employees across every demographic cohort demonstrate a general need for guidance in the use of social networking and digital media as learning tools. Many fall into patterns of inefficiency and ineffectiveness, and need help avoiding super saturation, working memory overload, non-productive learning, or irrelevant learning.

Learning leaders should consider more carefully the return-on-instruction for teaching employees how to develop skills for problem definition, scoping, searching, filtering, integrating, and interpreting to replace the unguided, free flow, and stream-of-consciousness patterns that prevail among employees. It may be time for learning organizations to take a step back and offer new “learn how to learn” solutions to help employees learn in the digital environment. Even Millennials, who are natural swimmers in social networking and digital media, don’t necessarily know how to learn in the domain. Swimming and learning are not necessarily the same thing.

Factor 3: Leadership Behavior
The third factor is leadership behavior, which we define as the dominant patters of leadership within an organization. The new behavioral requirement is shifting from knowledge and skills to the ability to acquire knowledge and skills. Competence is becoming a matter of individual dynamic learning. Not surprisingly, the new requirement can be personally threatening and psychologically unsafe for many leaders who have operated on the leader-as-expert model for so many years.

Leaders must stand first in line to model patterns of high performance learning. This requires a very different emotional and social posture. Leaders must become comfortable portraying themselves as competent by virtue of their ability to learn and adapt rather than on the basis of their current knowledge and skills. The new environment requires a level of humility and curiosity that is simply alien to most traditional conceptions of leadership. Ironically, leaders are being challenged to develop and engender confidence in the very act of their not knowing. Leaders need to be able to acknowledge publicly when reality moves beyond their knowledge and skills, and do so based on their demonstrated ability to learn and adapt. They must be submissive to the fact that they will pass through periods of temporary incompetence as they move through learning and change cycles. But they will do so based on their underlying ability and willingness to learn. What’s different today is that credibility is based on personifying the qualities of a high performance learner more than those of an expert.

Indeed, we are starting to see the emergence of a new kind of leader. It may in fact be the biggest shift in emphasis in leadership development theory in several decades. As a pattern, the new leader is exceptionally attuned to the changing environment and the perishable nature of competitive advantage. Because of this ongoing acknowledgement, the new leader is less wedded to trappings of status and privilege, less ego-driven, less yearning for deference, and certainly less attached to the status quo. Instead, dynamic learning leaders are more concerned with understanding the changing ecology of their organizations and protecting the value the organization has created through a vigilance and readiness to learn and adapt. The leader understands that learning is where advantage comes from, that it represents the highest form of enterprise risk management, and that the biggest risk a firm can take is to cease to learn. It seems increasingly clear that leaders who don’t possess deep patterns of aggressive and self-directed learning in their dispositions are almost certain to fail, whereas the ones who do are almost certain to succeed, provided, however, they combine those learning patterns with the ability to engage people.

Factor 4: Organizational Support
The fourth factor is organizational support. High agility organizations support learners at all five moments of learning need:
  1. Learning how to do something new for the first time.
  2. Learning more based on prior learning experience. 
  3. Learning at the moment when learners apply what they have learned in the context of workflow. 
  4. Learning when things change in order to adapt to new ways of doing things.
  5. Learning when things go wrong in order to solve a problem.
As a simple diagnostic, an organization can measure its basic learning agility by assessing the organization’s capacity to address the five moments of need. As organizations put in place systems that facilitate learning agility, those systems must be aligned and integrated in an efficient and intuitive way to accommodate performance for all five.

There are other critical aspects of organizational support. Learning agility is a co-creative process that springs from richly enabled interactions within and beyond the organization. There must be a process-oriented view of the business as a whole rather than fragmented sets of siloed activities.

In addition, highly agile organizations embrace collaborative learning and apply effectively the collective knowledge and skills within and even beyond their borders. Collective knowledge and skills encompass not only what is resident and evolving within people, but also all that has been captured and stored along the way, made and kept useful in a form that is immediately accessible and adaptive to individual needs.

Factor 5: Technical Support (Learning Technology)
The fifth and final factor is technical support. As organizations step into a full-out pursuit of learning agility, they must guard against being techno-dazzled, and instead pursue learning technology as a means to enable the previous four factors. In spite of the lost paths that many organizations pursue, there is promising news.

The learning technology market is finally turning serious attention to the informal side of learning. In response, performance support, authoring, delivery, and brokering tools are going mainstream. In addition, performer-generated content through social networking is extending performance support capacity in response to the widespread need for fingertip knowledge support.

Learning Content Management is also reasserting itself in the form of multi-channel publishing from single-sourced, metadata-enriched content. Other broader knowledge management technologies and practices are beginning to wrap around these LCM systems, enhancing the ability to capture, store, manage, and maximize the usefulness of content capital.

Other types of technology that accelerate collaborative work are integrating as mashups, further disallowing structure, aggregating human capability, and harnessing innovation and value out of what, at a tactical level, is a chaotic creative process.
And as Web 2.0 tools and systems continue to integrate, orchestrate, and extend across the traditional siloed boundaries within and beyond the formal structures and firewalls of organizations, they will continue to enhance but not drive learning agility.
All of this reflects a beginning of what technology can and is doing to help organizations learn at or above the speed of change. The key, here, is to apply these technologies to this vital mission.

The Pursuit of Learning Agility
Two decades ago, Peter Senge challenged organizations to develop the capacity to learn and adapt quickly. Most leaders acknowledged his point, but did very little to make the learning organization a reality. In the meantime, markets have become more unforgiving. The good news is that leading companies are making significant gains in various aspects of learning agility. However, few are excelling in all five factors. There simply isn’t a more important leadership challenge today than to move an organization to higher levels of learning agility. For learning leaders, the call to action is clear. A seat at the table is available for those who are prepared to meet this challenge and thrive in the new normal.


  1. Another excellent post Conrad. Thanks!


  2. Senge's "Fifth Discipline" definitely foretold this condition. Adopting a system's approach in training design produces superior solutions to support desired performance.